The subject of wine is long and varied. It is deeply intertwined into the tapestry of humanity throughout the ages. It was discovered about 8,000 years ago in the Georgia, Russia, dating back to the Neolithic period (8500-4000 B.C.). The oldest evidence of cultivated vines were found here, where in fact DNA of grapes were found metres away from the vines that were growing in the valley floor. Meaning these intuitive cave men and women were fermenting grapes and producing wines in the cooler parts of the region, long before they were reading and writing! An impressive feat to be fair. Over time it has evolved from humble squashed grapes in a jar, to gargantuan factories producing millions of litres each year, and everything in between. Impressively etching itself as one of the most established and longest trading industries the world has ever known.
It cannot be denied that wine has a wonderful mystic to it. This is driven by romantic fables of monks producing bubbles for the first time, or ancient goddesses using wines for healing properties, or miles and miles of perfectly manicured vines that produce wines that sell for thousands through posh auction houses. But of course, wine is ultimately an agricultural business, and similar to many other agricultural industries it is vital for us as consumers to be aware of its economic, social and environmental impact on todays globe, no matter how romanticised the wine story is. Ultimately is our precious glass of posh fermented grape juice stripping away our precious globe, or are modern wineries taking steps to work in harmony with mother nature herself.
As a wine educator, wine writer and general wine lover I am asked on a daily basis ‘is the wine organic?’ , ‘is the wine vegan?’, ‘does the wine have a lot of sulphites in it?’ However considering the situation we find ourselves currently in as humans, and the state of the globe. I believe it maybe more important to ask ‘is the winery sustainable?’, ‘is the winemaker using sustainable production methods?’, ‘is the winery treating its labour force fairly?’, ‘are they using recycled packaging?’, ‘are they using lighter glass?’, ‘do they transport their wines in the lowest carbon emitting method possible’ and so forth.
Unfortunately it is not really about the quality of the fruit and whether it is organic or not, but actually the larger picture as a whole. As we know a small organic farmer maybe bottling their wines in brand new heavy glass, or indeed possibly over-working their labour force, or transporting their wines in a fleet of old trucks spilling out diesel fumes cross tens of thousands of miles.
Wine storage, packaging and distribution contributes a staggering amount to wine’s carbon footprint. Far greater than the actual carbon emissions from fermentation itself. The wine bottle alone, plus its transportation, make up about 40-50% of the products carbon footprint. As we are aware glass bottles can weigh quite a lot, depending on the aesthetic the wine producer is looking for. And the result is seen in the transportation surplus costs. The average bottle releases 1.28kg of carbon into the atmosphere over the course of its lifespan. And yes you may argue that we as wine drinkers are off-setting some of the carbon by recycling our glass bottles fastidiously, however recycling is also a painstaking and challenging process. Glass needs to be separated by colour and this often has to be done by hand. And although there are a number of innovative packaging replacements, glass is by far the most preferred method of storage and consumption. Interestingly Jancis Robinson, one of the world’s leading wine critics is now including bottle weight in her reviews.
The sustainability of the world’s oldest industry of course not only lies with reducing glass weight, but also water use, choosing natural predators instead of pesticides and paying particular attention to workers’ health and safety. These are pillars of continued operation that are required. Miguel Torres in Penedes, Spain is certainly a beacon of inspiration for wineries globally. His family winery have committed to reinvesting 11% of their annual profits (€12 million) for environmental conservation. This includes capturing the carbon dioxide from their fermentation tanks, and reusing it as an energy source throughout the winery. Rainwater is harvested, purified and reused thought out the winery also. Further to this solar panels and photovoltaic installations have allowed Torres and his team to generate a staggering 25% of their own renewable electricity source. His mission is to become completely carbon neutral, with a specialised concentration on carbon capture, storage and reuse. And due to his slow but steady success there is a knock on affect throughout this vine growing region in Northern Spain, with Penedes becoming one of the world’s leading wine region for sustainable, organic practices.
As the old phrase goes it takes a village to raise a child, well it certainly takes a village to harvest a crop. Picking grapes in the mid-day sun can be back breaking work. Wineries under pressure to get grapes in fast, can often exploit the migrant workforce that have arrived for the season. Valentina Lira, sustainability manager at Chilean wine producer Concha Y Toro once pointed out, different countries focus on different elements of sustainability. South Americans are known to highlight increased sensitivities to social issues, while Europeans tend to be concerned about environmental issues, such as carbon footprint and land regeneration. A humanitarian scandal from an Italian natural wine producer a number of years ago forced US importers to review labour practices on wines that were being imported into the US. One editor in particular for the GouGou magazine spoke out, and created a report on labour statistics per winery. This included the size and nationality of the picking crew, length of harvest and workday, total number of hectares owned and bottles produced, their housing and meals provided, and finally the farming philosophy. The realities are, we would all like to drink some small bio dynamic, hand-picked wine for €7 a glass, but this could not occur without the exploitation of one aspect of the production. Something has to give, and in an instant like this it’s the labour force.
More and more wineries are attempting to attain ‘B corp’ status, which attests to business practices beyond the vineyard, such as corporate governance, employee security, environmental impact, community equity and customer management. Cono Sur was one of the first wineries to join. They were also the first winery in the world to obtain CarbonNeutral® certification in 2007. And now they currently manage over 300 hectares of organic vineyards. Their holistic commitment is unabashed and unwavering. It may be argued they are a large entity, thus ensuring their capabilities and financial resources to restructure their business model to adapt to these changes. Nevertheless, for a full overhaul of the wine industry it must begin at the top and work its way down, right down to the very tiny wineries with little no experience in sustainability at all.
Below is a list of some wines available here in Ireland from wineries that are at the fore of this green race to provide beautiful wines, but also save our planet.
Cono Sur Bicicleta Sauvignon Blanc Reserva, 2021, €10.99 (Castle Off Licence, Dunnes Stores, SuperValu, Carry Out Off Licence)
You would be forgiven to assume this is another standard Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, but actually this displays generous green citrus fruits on the palate with a zesty clean finish. It belies its meagre price. The bicycle in the name and on the label refers to the primary mode of transport they use to span the 300ha of organic farms they have. Their website is a dreamy homage to their mission statement, but indeed their accolade of awards and certs is a testament to their devoted commitment to sustainability in the wine world.
Castilla de Perelada, Nomes de Garnaxta Blanca, Emporda, Spain €19.95 (Boutique wines)
This is white Grenache that is grown amongst the wild herbs and sea air in the French/ Spanish border region of Emporda. It has freshness and elegance yet completely envelopes your palate with flavours of baked lemons, sage, rosemary and a touch of ginger infused rhubarb. Stunning.
This particular winery was the vision of Miguel Mateu, who primary goal was to revitalise local ancient grapes and ancient winemaking techniques in a modern, eco designed building. This winery is the first of its kind in Europe to receive the LEED cert, which represents their unbounding efforts to make wine in an environment that blends into its local surroundings. From a distant this huge modern winery is almost undetectable. All of the carbon emissions are trapped and reused, much like their water conservation techniques. Local inhabitants are employed, and all the of their furniture and art are made by locals of the region also.
Chapoutier, Belleruche Rouge, Cotes du Rhone, Rhone Valley, France €17.95 (O’Briens, Wineonline, Tesco)
This is a Cotes du Rhone with serious character. It is deep and dark with crimson berries and just a peppering of spice. The real charm of this wine lies with the origin of the wine and its winemaker. Michel and his brother quite brutally took over from their father in the 80’s. They burst on to the wine scene with pipe dreams of biodynamic farming and organic dominance long before anyone dared these illusions back then. Rhone valley is a region seeped in tradition and history, so when he was commissioning egg fermenters and using horses to till his soils, people feared he may have lost his mind, he hadn’t. They now produce millions of bottles each year, and every single one from entry level to single vineyards are created with organic fruit, in recycled glass and made in the interest of fair trade and labour protection.
Felton Road Pinot Noir, Bannockburn, New Zealand, 2022, €59.99 (Jus de Vine, Mitchel and Son, Martins Off Licence)
Yes this is a treat wine. It is the epitome of juicy, red fruit, excellent New World Pinot Noir. But when you peruse through the Felton Road website you are honoured with a telescope into the winery and all its operations. Everything from its energy efficiency, to its water management, to its staff and social policy to recycled packaging, even on the beer bottles they drink from for their harvest! This is all captured in a well-documented and most importantly easy to read sustainability report.
WRITTEN BY BRIGID O’HORA @BRIDEYSWINECHATS